Joe Hendren

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Could Watergate be uncovered today - some reflections on the media

Today I was interested to hear that Mark Felt, former deputy director of the FBI has confirmed he was 'Deep Throat', the inside source who leaked the secrets of the Watergate scandal and helped bring down President Nixon. Only last week I was watching 'All the Presidents Men' - the 1975 film which tells the story of how two junior Washington Post journalists uncovered Watergate. 'All the Presidents Men' is a top notch drama, and best of all, its all true.

Could journalists uncover a scandal like Watergate today? Would we see a major commercial newspaper dedicating two staff reporters to a story for more than two years? Somehow I doubt it, especially if such an investigation was seen to challenge the traditional powers that be. Advice to 'follow the money' now means something quite different in journalism - just ask Rupert Murdoch.

Would a genuine whistleblower be treated any better today, if they made themselves publicly known at the time? While it does depend on the attitude of individual countries to 'official secrets' and the provision of adequate legislation to protect genuine whistleblowers - the attitude they face is usually pretty hostile. Consider the case of GCHQ worker Katherine Gunn, who revealed that UK intelligence services were bugging the United Nations.

The modern media appear to place a higher value on an instant stream of new facts instead of hard slog investigative reporting and analysis. Similarly, scientists are encouraged to immediately find 'commercial applications' for their work, with lower 'value' attached to 'blue skies research'.

Sadly there appear to be few opportunities to be involved in genuine investigative reporting without doing years of inconsequential human interest stories. This, in a nutshell, is the reason I have not applied for journalism school.

Occasionally there are some notable and worthy exceptions, such as the recent series in the Press uncovering the dodgy Transpower cross border lease, but this investigation was not led by journalists within the newspaper. The key research for this story is due to work carried out by Sue Newberry as part of her role as a senior lecturer in accountancy at Canterbury University.

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At 1:50 am, Blogger Brian Boyko said...

Joe: Journalism school indeed points out all those problems - the type of "constant stream of irrelevant facts" are what happens when it hits the real world.

You'd do very well in J-school with that attitude.

Working in the "real world" on the other hand...

I do think that newspapers that do not go from a "stream of facts" model to a "95% investigative" model are doomed to irrelevance by the Internet, and I think our current crop of editors doesn't seem to realise that. They're still in the "if it bleeds, it leads" model.

I'd talk with you about this later but I have to get to work.

At 8:57 pm, Blogger Joe Hendren said...

thanks Brian :)

Earlier this year I did a two day journalism course on feature writing and thoroughly enjoyed discussing these issues in an academic context. I also appreciated getting an idea of the kinds of stories student journalists get published, even if it made it clearer to me the years of slog on human interest stories was not the road I wanted to take.

I also wonder if by adopting a 'stream of facts' model newspapers are attempting to compete with TV news - which I suspect is a battle they have already lost.


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